By Charles Ferruzza
With so many national chain restaurants operating in the Johnson County area, it doesn’t seem possible that the old-fashioned “Mom & Pop” restaurant of an earlier era – the long-forgotten John Francis Restaurant in downtown Overland Park comes to mind as an example – could even exist in the highly competitive atmosphere.
Yes, I realize that’s a sweeping generalization: Many of the ethnic restaurants within the Shawnee Mission boundaries are family-owned and operated, including the Bo Lings empire which was, for many years, guided by husband-and-wife Richard and Theresa Ng (who have since relinquished control of several of the restaurants in order to focus on their flagship property on the Country Club Plaza).
The kind of “Mom & Pop” restaurant I’m thinking about here is a throwback to the diners and cafes that dotted the suburban Kansas landscape for many years. They were often small-town affairs and could operate successfully without serving liquor or passing themselves off as a “private club” – which was an issue in Johnson County until the mid-1980s.
Some of these throwback dining establishments that are still family-owned include Johnny Cascone’s (6863 West 91st Street, Overland Park) which is still overseen by the venerable Cascone family, popular local restaurateurs since the 1950s. There’s also the Santa Fe Café (9946 West 87th Street, Overland Park) and the Scudiero family’s Villa Capri (10412 Mastin Street, Overland Park).
For the last eight years, another husband-and-wife team has built up a solid business serving breakfast, lunch and dinner in an unlikely location. In 2009, Kozeta and Albert Kreka of Pogradec, Albania transformed a badly dated convenience store at 6740 W 75th Street in Overland Park into Cozy’s Café. It’s an unglamorous, but spotlessly clean American-style café (there are ethnic dishes too, including gyro sandwiches, spaghetti and meatballs and one of the best slabs of lasagna you’ll find in the metro); the 23 tables are uncloaked, but accessorized with fresh flowers and the soundtrack includes Dean Martin and Nat King Cole.
A throwback? Yes, but only in the best possible way. The daily lunch and dinner specials are written on a chalkboard and reflect the culinary backgrounds of the owners.
“Albania is bordered by bordered by Montenegro, Kosovo, Macedonia and Greece,” says Albert Kreka.
Kozeta – known to her customers as Cozy – runs the restaurant from 6:30 a.m. until after the lunch shift. Albert takes over in the afternoons. The restaurant does a thriving breakfast business, particularly on the weekends and a solid lunch trade, but slows down during the dinner hours.
I’m not sure why, since the dinners – always reasonably priced – are delicious and include one of the prettiest house salads in town: romaine, feta cheese, purple cabbage, chopped tomatoes and black olives.
A recent dinner special was a plump baked chicken breast stuffed with spinach and goat cheese, served with triangles of baked polenta smothered in a fresh-tasting marinara.
This is the kind of restaurant where patrons can order a triple cheeseburger with grilled onions for dinner or a very fine osso bucco.
Cozy Kreka still bakes the baklava herself, but for fans of classic diner dishes, she serves Overland Park-based Golden Boy pies – the gold standard of local pies – including chocolate cream and the fluffiest slab of lemon meringue you’ll find anywhere.
It’s a cliché, but they just don’t make little family-owned restaurants like Cozy’s Café anymore. I’m just grateful you can still find them.